BATON ROUGE, La. — Opening Day is finally here, LSU baseball fans.
The 2018 LSU baseball team kicks off its season Friday night when the Tigers take on Notre Dame at 7 p.m. CT at Alex Box Stadium. Thus begins the Tigers’ 56-game battle for seeding and the chance to return to Omaha for the College World Series after finishing as national runners-up in 2017.
Returning to Omaha isn’t a foregone conclusion this season. LSU has as much talent to replace as any team in the SEC. The Tigers have three new starting pitchers and must replace four MLB draft picks in the everyday lineup. Still, the Tigers are talented, ranking No. 16 in the preseason D1 Baseball rankings behind the strength of sophomore lineup fixtures Josh Smith and Zach Watson, as well as high-upside starting pitchers Caleb Gilbert and Zack Hess.
With that in mind, here are five objectives LSU needs to achieve if it wants to earn its way back to Omaha:
1. Replace on-base leaders
LSU’s offense was as dominant as it was in 2017 in part because of the talent its veterans had for getting on base. Departed starters Cole Freeman, Greg Deichmann, Kramer Robertson and Michael Papierski all posted on-base percentages better than .400, a feat only one returning starter (Smith) achieved in 2017.
Smith should be able to build upon his .407 mark from the leadoff hole, and getting catcher/first baseman Bryce Jordan back from injury should help as well, as Jordan got on base at a .419 clip in 2016. But LSU is going to need Watson, right fielder Antoine Duplantis and third baseman Jake Slaughter to improve on their free-swinging ways.
Without the power that Deichmann, Robertson and Papierski supplied, LSU is going to have to manufacture runs. And getting on base is the best way to do that.
2. Find consistency in rotation
Losing Eric Walker to Tommy John surgery was the biggest hit LSU could’ve taken heading into 2018. Without him, LSU coach Paul Mainieri doesn’t have a returning starting pitcher. That said, Gilbert and Hess are coming off as dominant of postseasons as you can find, with Hess earning 4 saves in Omaha and Gilbert notching a 0.76 ERA in 32 2/3 postseason innings.
The question is will Gilbert, Hess and sophomore third starter Todd Peterson be able to provide the consistency that Alex Lange, Jared Poché and Walker did in 2017. Completing a season with the same three starters every weekend is an unbelievable luxury. If LSU pulls that off, the Tigers will be in a good position.
3. Find power source
Between graduations, draft declarations and transfers, LSU lost 44 of its 69 home runs from 2017. No returning player hit more than 9 home runs last season and only two hit 5-plus.
Watson should be able to lead the team in power hitting now that he’ll start for the full season. And Smith should be good for 5-10 jacks from the leadoff spot. But LSU is going to need power contributions from Slaughter and freshmen Daniel Cabrera and Nick Webre, all of whom showed flashes in fall ball and preseason scrimmages.
4. Develop trust in back end
Mainieri admitted Thursday that he hasn’t figured out who his closer is going to be. He has options. Veterans Austin Bain, Nick Bush and Matthew Beck will be in the mix, as well as freshmen Ma’Khail Hilliard and Devin Fontenot.
Expect Bush, Bain and Beck to compete for the role early; Mainieri likes veterans to throw early in the season. But Hilliard and Fontenot have stuff teammates have been raving about. And when freshmen AJ Labas and Nick Storz are healthy, they might be in the conversation as well. There are a lot of bodies, but someone is going to have to stand out.
5. Rally behind a leader
Kramer Robertson might not have been the best shortstop in LSU baseball history, but he knew how to lead a team. Without him, there’s a leadership vacuum. Gilbert has taken over as the leader in the pitchers room, but pitchers are weird and leadership means something different for mound dwellers.
The question is who will step up as the vocal and emotional spark plug in the everyday lineup. Smith seems like the natural choice, but everyone from Watson to Duplantis to Bryce Jordan to Slaughter could be thrown into the position. Someone needs to do it. Because without a voice, this team easily could go silent.
What’s next for LSU baseball?
The Tigers open the 2018 season Friday versus Notre Dame. For more information on how to watch, stream and follow the game, click here.
The post 5 things LSU baseball must do in 2018 to return to College World Series appeared first on SEC Country.